Today’s foreign do-gooders in Haiti are the 9,000 members of Minustah, the UN’s peacekeeping force. They are surely better-meaning than the interlopers of the past. But the Haitian government has little more influence over them than it did over America’s marines. And in recent years the force has inflicted great damage. Its troops have been blamed for starting a cholera epidemic that has claimed 7,000 lives, and have been accused in numerous cases of rape and sexual assault. Its missteps are leading to ever more strident calls for greater accountability for peacekeepers.
The latest public-relations volley was launched on April 21st at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. “Baseball in the Time of Cholera”, directed by two foreign-aid workers living in Haiti, weaves together the stories of a teenage athlete who loses his mother to cholera and lawyers suing the UN for negligent sanitation at a Nepali peacekeeping base. The film features plenty of news footage of the base, including sewage pipes flowing into a tributary of Haiti’s largest river. The first cholera cases appeared near the base, and the bacteria—a South Asian strain—quickly spread along the river and its network of canals, which Haitians use for bathing, drinking, irrigating crops and washing clothes.
Since the outbreak began the UN has tried to dodge accusations of responsibility, saying that the source of the disease is unknowable or unimportant. But a series of epidemiological and genome studies have all but established Minustah’s role as fact. Citing scientific evidence, in November the lawyers featured in the film filed 5,000 complaints to Minustah’s claims office on behalf of cholera victims, seeking at least $250m in damages. The UN’s peacekeeping department says it is studying them. Until now, the claims office has dealt with smaller matters, such as property damage.
Minustah’s reputation has been further tarnished by charges of sexual abuse. Two Pakistani soldiers were accused of raping a 14-year-old boy, and a group of Uruguayan peacekeepers allegedly sexually assaulted an 18-year-old boy and videoed the incident. The justice system has worked somewhat better in these cases—a Pakistani military tribunal convened in Haiti convicted its soldiers last month, and the Uruguayans seem likely to face trial in their home country. But the Pakistanis were sentenced to just one year in prison. A popular song at this year’s Haitian Carnival included a line cautioning young men nearby the peacekeepers to watch their rears.
Excerpts from,UN in Haiti: First, do no harm, Economist, April 28, 2012, at 41